How our national broadcaster has tried—and sometimes failed—to cover the biggest political crisis of our timeby Mark Damazer / March 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
I need to begin with a confession. I am a BBC believer. Public service broadcasting, which extends beyond the BBC but has the organisation at its centre, is one of the best things about Britain. It was my teenage ambition to work for it when growing up in a north London suburb, devouring Match of the Day, Top of the Pops and also the news. My parents were not British but they were BBC-shaped and the BBC represented truth, respectability and—well—Britishness.
I eventually got my BBC staff number—and ended up in charge of various news departments and then Radio 4, leaving in 2010. Five years later, I joined the BBC Trust (its then governing body) where, along with others, I had oversight of the BBC’s editorial performance during the Brexit referendum.
That referendum—and its unfolding aftermath—is, as one senior BBC presenter put it to me, “the biggest political and national story of our age, raising huge and deep questions about identity, destiny and the role of parliament.” What’s more, he added, it has raised huge and deep questions about the BBC too—questions that could become more explosive amid rising talk of a fresh public vote. “This could not be a more important, more difficult time for the BBC—heightened and emotional partisan debate, belief in fake news, distrust of ‘mainstream media,’” was the view of this famous face on the inside. So can it survive this maelstrom?
In the eye of the storm
Every senior editorial manager I spoke to believes that it has become more difficult to persuade both the public and politicians that the BBC is doing its impartial duty on Brexit. The data reflects this rising difficulty. The BBC is still way out in front of allcomers when the public is asked which news source they trust the most. But the numbers who think the BBC is biased are rising. Not hugely, but clearly enough—and the overall impartiality score is falling.
The BBC’s Director of Strategy, Gautam Rangarajan, an appropriately scholarly former Radio 3 man, is in charge of crunching these numbers. He thinks that even in the divisive Thatcher era, when the BBC was often vehemently attacked from near the top (think Norman Tebbit from one end of the political spectrum,…